Dancing Pictures

Ballets Russes

Wolfgang Beltracchi’s work “Scheherazade” (2017) was inspired by the ballet of the same name, which, with its new vitality, was a sensation at its world premiere in Paris in 1910. (photo Beltracchi)

1909 – 1929

The Ballets Russes – All Artists to the Stage

It is a time of upheaval and inner conflict. At the beginning of the 20th century, the engineering sciences are furthering advances in industrialization at a breathtaking pace. The resulting urbanization fundamentally changes social structures: some people take advantage of unimagined opportunities, others lose their footing. The rational view of the world is also being torn apart by discoveries such as the theory of relativity. In the irritating atmosphere of departure from outdated values, Europe’s monarchical systems of government are behind the times, nationalist tendencies are spreading and extreme militarization is unsettling people. Society fluctuates between euphoria and fear of the future.

And what does the cultural avant-garde make out of the feeling of awakening and helplessness? They flee into aesthetic counterworlds and celebrate – opulently, frivolously and decadently – the break with old values. More than almost any other artistic movement, Ballets Russes embodies this zeitgeist for more than two decades. Founded by the Russian impresario Sergei Djagilev, they made their first appearance in Paris in 1909. The ensemble rejects the traditions of classical dance and fascinates its audience with erotic choreographies. Composers, painters, dancers – with new rhythms, fantastic stage sets and costumes they turn the Ballets Russses performances into fireworks for the senses.

Russian director Sergei Djagilev founded the ballet ensemble in 1909 in Paris, the center of dance art, which proved to be the most important ballet ensemble of the 20th century. To this day, the Ballets Russes are regarded as the avant-garde of dance and had considerable influence upon their contemporaries. Musicians, dancers, members of the theater and artists intensively exchanged their ideas and skills. Painters not only created stage sets and costumes for the ballet, but also drew inspiration from the Ballets Russes for their own works. No matter which style they belonged to – whether primitivism, surrealism, futurism, cubism or fauvism – they were equally fascinated by the Ballets Russes.

The “young people” in the ballet “The Rite of Spring” stamped and jumped to the rhythmic music by Igor Stravinsky. For the Parisian audience, the Cubist dancing style was not only disconcerting, but also a catastrophe. But even the devastating critics could not stop the avant-garde Ballets Russes movement. (1)

Five Facts – The Ballets Russes

The Russian ballet ensemble Ballets Russes integrates very diverse arts as an overarching, almost social phenomenon. Founder Sergei Djagilev commissions renowned international artists such as Mikhail Larinov, Nataliya Goncharova, Henri Matisse, Léon Bakst, Igor Stavinsky, Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky for his productions. The result is a genre-spanning art scene whose protagonists inspire each other.

Starting from Russia, ballet had freed itself from the corset of the opera at the beginning of the 19th century and gained worldwide fame and recognition as classical, romantic ballets. Now, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian Sergei Djagilev is pressing ahead with epochal changes. The expressive dance breaks with the traditions of classical ballet and forms an avant-garde with the Balletts Russes, which we could already observe in painting shortly before.

The cultural and art scene gathers in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. Free spirits such as Picasso, Gertrud Stein, Hemingway or Stravinsky live almost next door to each other in France. In addition to literature, the mutual inspiration takes place above all in painting, and the public clash of their different styles is reflected in the changing costumes and scenery of the Balletts Russes.

The staging of Claude Debussy’s “The Afternoon of a Faun” is a shock for Paris audiences in 1912. Nijinsky wrote the choreography himself and takes on the role of the faun. Unabashed and in love with himself, he makes clear sexual allusions and triggered a debate about the aesthetic value of dancing.

It is not only painters who create costumes for the Ballets Russes, but also other artists, including fashion designer Coco Chanel. Compared to her contemporaries, the style icon stood out for her elegant but rather restrained designs. The most beautiful and important costumes for the Ballets Russes were created by Leon Bakst.

The Balletts Russes also revolutionize music. The composer Igor Stravinsky shocked the audience of “Le Sacre du Printemps” with dissonances, changes of beat and strong rhythms, which accompany the backward and seemingly clumsy movements of the dancers. The audience reacts with angry interjections, whistles and provocative laughter. The Parisian audience, accustomed to fine tones, is so agitated that fights break out between supporters and opponents; 27 people were injured.

In 1909 Diaghilev hired dancer Nijinsky for his ballet ensemble and called it Ballets Russes for the first time. The opening in Paris with various popular dances was very successful. (2)

A stage for the fine arts: Russian impressario Sergei Diaghilev hired the best musicians, Russian dancers and painters for his plays. (photo Beltracchi)

There can be no avant-garde without scandal: the performance of “The Rite of Spring” ended with booing and had to be interrupted several times. (photo Beltracchi)


Image sources:

1: Igor STRAVINSKY ballet – Rite of Spring / Sacre du Printemps © Music-Images /Alamy Stock Foto
2: VASLAV NIJINKSY (1890-1950). © Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
a: Lucas Cranach the Elder „Ungleiches Paar (Der alte Buhler)“. © bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
b: Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. © bpk / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY
c: Gustav Klimt „Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” 1907.  © John Baran / Alamy Stock Foto.
d: Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © www.BibleLandPictures.com/Alamy Stock Foto
e: Detail from Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters, ca. 1608 © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
f: Detail from William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
g: Detail from Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer im Nebelmeer, 1818. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
h: Detail from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer, 1557 © Archivart / Alamy Stock Photo